In the wake of the recent closure of Little Black Duck Café in Guyra, there have been a number of cases of reported theft and fraud the police don’t seem to be interested in because it happened between people who knew each other.
Be it by outright theft, an IOU that never gets repaid, or fraudulent business dealings, a number of allegations have been levelled at the former owner of the Little Black Duck, both in Guyra and in Tasmania where she lived previously. The common threads between the reported cases are, firstly, there is a personal element to the loss, and secondly that the police have been quick to dismiss these alleged crimes as a “civil dispute” that is not worthy of their attention.
So, when does it stop becoming a police issue and start becoming purely the victim’s concern?
After speaking with experienced criminal law specialist Andrew Tiedt, of J Sutton Associates, the answer is both complex and basic.
“If the victim is unable to gain police assistance, they are left to fight the battle themselves in the court system – often by directly suing the individual who they believe stole from them through the Small Claims Division of the Local Court.”
“Civil disputes, particularly those that intersect with matters of family law, are notoriously time-consuming and complicated,” Mr Tiedt said.
For most Australians, the costs of pursuing legal action, be it financial, time, or both, are insurmountable. In rural communities where resources are already stretched thin, it becomes evident why so many of these cases go unheard.
“The system is as good as it can be with the resources it has,” Mr Tiedt said.
Dr Kyle Mulrooney, co-director of UNE’s Centre for Rural Criminology, says that there is greater opportunity and you’re more likely to get away with it in rural areas. It’s a combination that makes it the perfect rural crime.
“In a rural community, there is more opportunity than in more urbanised areas for this kind of crime not only to occur, but also to go unchecked”.
He also says that, in his experience, crimes of this nature are also often not reported soon enough. The prime example he offered is livestock theft.
“By the time police involvement is started, the evidence becomes difficult to find or prove.”
“For farmers with large properties it may take them weeks or months to even realise stock is missing and by then it is hard to firmly establish any criminal activity,” Dr Mulrooney said.
The reasons are, once again, complex and multifaceted.
“A combination of heavy reliance on family and friendship networks, a lack of resources, and a culture of trust, can make perfect conditions for financial abuse,” Dr Mulrooney explains, particularly within family groups.
He also finds that rural townships tend to have strong notions of “self-policing”.
“This can be due to minimal or no police presence, a lack of trust in law enforcement, or the idea that pursuing these matters outside of their own personal network is either too hard or brings embarrassment to the family or business involved.”
The concept of self-policing is nuanced but also one that anyone who has lived in a smaller town will probably be well familiar with. Dr Mulrooney says this often involves the community grapevine, where word of mouth and local channels of communication can be used to quickly ostracise an individual who has been accused of a wrongdoing.
“It’s highly effective at cutting someone off from the community and often has the effect of driving them out of town.”
What it doesn’t do, however, is get your money or belongings back.
So where does that leave the individual? To return to the purely legal argument, the question ultimately becomes how much is it worth to you?
Regardless of whether you pursue a matter through Small Claims, or choose to seek legal representation, there will be a cost. And it’s a cost that many cannot justify, particularly if there is the added impost of having to travel to another town to go to court.